Cano, Seattle having success with first pitch

Cano, Seattle having success with first pitch

OAKLAND -- The common thread between Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano's homers in Saturday's 4-3 win over the A's, outside of both being hit over 400 feet, was that they both came on the first pitch from Oakland starter Kendall Graveman.

Cruz jumped on a fourth-inning fastball from Graveman, launching it 408 feet to left field and tying the game at 1-1. Cano followed an inning later, mashing an elevated fastball 426 feet to left-center for a two-run homer and a sudden 4-1 lead.

If it seemed familiar, it should, especially for Cano.

The Mariners are third in the Majors with 33 first-pitch homers this season, trailing only the Cardinals and Orioles (34). Cano is tied with Baltimore's Chris Davis with a Major League high of nine first-pitch homers.

Cano said he was cognizant of how Graveman pitched him in his first two at-bats, including leaving a first-pitch fastball over the plate in his first at-bat.

"It's a matter of you being ready and taking advantage when this kind of guy gets it over the plate," Cano said.

The numbers show Graveman isn't the only opposing pitcher susceptible to Cano's penchant for early swings. He leads the Majors with 37 first-pitch hits, and is hitting first pitches at a .430 clip with a 1.286 OPS. It's a significant improvement over his rate in 2015, when he hit .378 with a .957 OPS on first pitches.

But the aggressive approach extends beyond Cano. As a team, Seattle is hitting .383 when swinging at the first pitch to go along with a 1.088 OPS, the best marks in the league.

"That's something the majority of our guys have done well all year," manager Scott Servais said. "It's something that Dae-Ho [Lee] hasn't done as well recently. When he's struggling he tries to hit everything. You have to get in your zone and look for one pitch in one spot. And if you get it, swing at it."

Of course, swinging at the first pitch eliminates the extension of at-bats and the potential a more hittable pitch, in perhaps a more favorable count, is thrown. It's something Cano brought up follow Saturday's game.

"You said I have nine homers first pitch," Cano asked, "but how many outs do I have?"

It's an intriguing question, especially posed at a team-wide rate. According to Baseball Reference, the Mariners are hitting .275 with a .768 OPS in at-bats when they've swung at the first pitch. They've ultimately walked in four percent of those at-bats, while striking out 19 percent of the time.

It's a smaller sample size compared to when they've taken the first pitch, as they're hitting .249 with a .753 OPS in those at-bats while walking at an 11.2 percent clip compared to a 24.4 percent strikeout rate.

As Servais said, some veterans, such as Cano, have an exceptional combination of talent and acumen at the plate. And while swinging at the first pitch may not always be advised, the Mariners have found success doing it so far this year.

"We do have an aggressive team by nature," Servais said. "So controlling the zone doesn't necessarily mean take, take, take. If you get your pitch, whack it."

Mark Chiarelli is a reporter for MLB.com based in the Bay Area. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.